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Revathi Advaithi deftly commands Flex, a $26 billion manufacturer, because she learned to step outside her comfort zone years ago.
She knew nothing about handling profit and loss statements when power management company Eaton promoted her to a plant manager role with those duties. She had trained in her native India as a mechanical engineer, then worked there for Xerox before emigrating to seek a University of Oklahoma master’s degree. Advaithi dropped out to be a shop floor supervisor at an Eaton hydraulic pump plant. When she was promoted at age 30, Advaithi bought corporate accounting and finance books to fill her knowledge gap, then sought real-life guidance from her Eaton finance leader. She eventually rose to chief operating officer of its sizable electrical sector. And she still owns both books.
“You will never jump into an uncomfortable situation if you’re too afraid to fail,’’ says Advaithi, one of only 24 women running a Fortune Global 500 company. “You can always figure it out if you ask for help.’’
The Flex chief executive applies that lesson today as she tackles its ambitious climate change goals and the looming growth slowdown. Headquartered in San Jose, Calif., but legally domiciled in Singapore, the contract manufacturing services giant produces everything from electric vehicle modules to vacuum cleaners. You may even have an Apple Mac Pro assembled by Flex. Its vast manufacturing space would fill the Pentagon four times over.
Every year since Advaithi took Flex’s highest spot in 2019, “there has been something pretty significant for me to navigate through,’’ the 55-year-old executive says. During the pandemic, Flex made ventilators for the first time and became one of the biggest makers of lifesaving equipment within nine months. “I now operate well outside my comfort zone because I’ve learned to put my people first in every crisis situation,” she says.
TIME spoke with Advaithi about why so-called “reshoring” will transform manufacturing worldwide and her passion for helping other women advance.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Flex aims to cut its greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 and achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040. Are those goals proving hard to reach?
It is not harder than we had expected in terms of pure environmental focus. Having sustainability metrics [with] science-based targets we set for our factories is not that difficult because technology is getting better every day. I’m comfortable that we’ll get ahead of delivering the 2030 goal and will also increase the size and scope of our next round of commitments.
[But] ESG disclosures required by numerous nations these days have become very comprehensive and detailed. Managing those have become more challenging. I’m more worried about how you track all these hundreds of metrics in front of us and make sure we are providing a very transparent sustainability report.
What steps is Flex taking to assist its corporate clients in combating climate change?
Our markets include automotive, cloud, communications, consumer devices, healthcare, and industrial. Just about every big multinational is a customer. We play almost a consulting role with many customers, helping them think through sustainability goals. We are focused on the hardware side of their products.
We want every customer to be thinking about how they can better enable a circular economy by repairing, refurbishing, and reusing products and materials where possible. If I make something that stops functioning, I take it back and remake it into something else. And you manage the waste at the time it stops having a useful life. Having that end-to-end view on every product made in this world is the most important [environmental] strategy that our customers can have. You have to take many single steps like that to deliver what is important in this global crisis.
Will the next recession seriously crimp your growth? Flex recently forecast that revenue growth might exceed 15% in the year ending March 31.
There will be bumps. [Growth] will come down a little bit from that 15% plus for next year and then go back up again. But I still see our growth positive through the cycle, which is pretty significant in the recessionary environment.
What’s your game plan for steering Flex through the coming downturn?
While I do take a lot of risks, I’m also very disciplined. We plan for recession, methodically testing all the ways the business is going to behave. But things will happen that we haven’t planned for, and you can’t get overwhelmed in those situations. I believe in leading with a sense of calm and empathy so employees see you can lead them through difficult times. In the recessionary environment, there [are] going to be surprises. Like other surprises we have seen, we’ll say, “Let’s take [them] one step at a time.’’
How will the current reshoring boom and end of globalization affect Flex? Businesses want to make things closer to the point of use rather than face disruption risks at factories spread around the globe. Though year-end figures aren’t available yet, U.S. companies were expected to return several hundred thousand jobs to America during 2022 because they want their supply chains closer to home.
Flex is in the middle of everything that involves rebalancing of supply chains. It is about driving a sustainability improvement [and] most importantly, reducing risks associated with the complex supply chain [such as] manufacturing where you have less control of the geopolitical environment. Shipping things back and forth around the world doesn’t make sense today. But changing that is not simple. We get rewarded to help our customers do complex things.
We’re seeing an increase in our customers interested in manufacturing in the Americas as a result of regionalization. [For Flex], North America will continue to become bigger and bigger relative to the other two regions of the world.
What is happening today is going to shift our thinking around supply chain and manufacturing for decades. We have a gap between the aspiration of wanting to manufacture everything in the United States versus the availability of people to do that manufacturing. We’re making big decisions every day about where we make things. How [do] the demographics affect that? Do we have the skills? What does the next level of skill education look like? That is the most significant challenge we’re facing. I [also] see it as a very significant opportunity.
How has being a woman of color affected your career trajectory?
It has only been a hindrance. Thirty years ago, I was so naïve that I didn’t realize the effect of being a woman of color. But I looked different when I arrived at Eaton’s plant in Shawnee, Oklahoma. In a company like that, many decisions in North America [happened] at the ground level. Working with distributors was hard enough being a woman. It was even harder being a woman of color with a strange name. Nobody wanted to even talk to me because they didn’t know how to say my name. That was very, very difficult, and it even happens today.
I have to work doubly hard to build relationships and do things out of my comfort zone. Though I was a vegetarian during my early Eaton days, I learned to hunt and fish with distributors because I could get to know them, work with them, and expand their business Whether [you’re) a woman or a woman of color, you have to have a strategy to ignore a few things but then make sure you still are able to build [business] relationships. At the end of the day, that is the only way the world works.
You recently began holding your managers accountable for hiring, sponsoring, and promoting more female staffers. Describe other ways that you’re trying to improve the status of women within Flex.
As a female CEO, I find it easy to ask people to hold themselves accountable to this gender diversity goal. First and most importantly, we made sure we [ticked] the box on policy things that get in the way of why women don’t want the next job or people think they don’t want it. Things like the right parental leave structure or [providing) enough flexibility in their working.
The second idea is sponsorship. That is very important to me. I want our team leaders to be at the table talking on behalf of a woman when the next promotion decision is made. More of our leaders across the company sponsor them into the [new] role and make sure they’re successful.
The third is something more futuristic. We are measuring the question of work from home. We’ll see the full effect of men and women coming back to the office in an unbalanced way over the next couple of years. Does that impact our promotion rates for women? They’ve accelerated in the last three years, and we need to continue to accelerate [them]. But we’ll see some stagnation if our women continue to want to work from home and don’t build networks. Does that [also] change our promotion and sponsorship rates because we’re not spending enough time getting to know them personally?
We’re now thinking through how to support women who want the flexibility that the pandemic has given them. We need to find formal and informal networks to support women. We have our hand in many different strategies.
Yet despite such efforts, only three of your 16 top lieutenants are women. Company-wide, women hold just 27% of all managerial positions. Why are you progressing so slowly toward your goal of gender parity throughout management?
I’m not satisfied with where we are. But we went from 18% of women in management positions in 2018 before I became CEO to 27% in 2021. And two of the three women on my leadership teams have [profit and loss] roles. We took a lot of effort to find the two women from outside the company.
We’re very focused on identifying [other] impactful roles that we can get women into. We are continuing to work on strategies to take the “no’s” out of this equation. We’re making sure our factory structure is capable of promoting women. We’re finding more women leaders we can promote to general managers of our plants. When people see that [women] running factories works, more women want to get in.
Parity on gender diversity is something I’ve talked about all my life in every organization I’ve been in. We won’t stop until we achieve gender parity.
Will you realize your dream of gender parity for Flex management during your time as CEO?
That would be my crowning glory. I would just retire in peace.
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